Picture the one-sheets of your all-time favorite action movies. Perhaps not classics, at least not in the conventional sense. But sometimes you have to flip the proverbial bird in conventional sense’s direction. Every so often you need goodly and sound action spectacle to slap you in face, splash pepper spray in your eyes and singe your brows off with the collective amazing happening to those two vein bags you call eyeballs. For me, that’s Olympus Has Fallen: the best 90s-era Renny Harlin action flick that 90s-era Renny Harlin never directed.
Massive props to Antoine Fuqua for getting his swagger back. Fuqua was a late bloomer, fielding middling crud like The Replacement Killers and Bait before knocking one out of the park with Training Day. But he lost his way not soon after, putting out mediocre drivel like King Arthur, Shooter and Brooklyn’s Finest for twelve years. When you stop and think about it, Training Day’s premise is ridiculous. A rookie cop unseating his superior, a drug kingpin with a badge, in the span of twenty-four hours surely read like schlock on paper. But Fuqua played it completely straight, coaxing an Oscar-winning performance from Denzel Washington and delivering a taut action opera that leaves an impression.
But there’s a difference between playing it straight and being over-serious: the audience is lost if they’re not in one the joke. Worse, over-serious drudge like Shooter plays dumb, with an ever-present likelihood of insulting the viewer. Olympus Has Fallen knows exactly what kind of film it is and, brilliantly, it wants you to know the same. It’s moments like Aaron Eckhart (as President Benjamin Asher) screaming an overdramatic “Noooo!” into the frozen tundra as he’s dragged away from his sinking limo. It’s Gerard Butler pumping bullets into an endless supply of nameless, faceless bad guys, impervious to counterfire even as his peers are endlessly mowed down. It’s a White House that shoots missiles.
I’ve been guilty of classifying Olympus Has Fallen as “Die Hard in the White House.” After a second viewing I’ve seen the error in my ways. Olympus Has Fallen is “Die Hard 2 in the White House.” It knows what it wants to be, never settles for anything less, and never tries to convince you it’s anything more.
To that effect, Gerard Butler’s Mike Banning, a disgraced former Secret Service agent, is a mountainous, vein-buldging phallic symbol fucking everything he sees. On the receiving end? Terrorism. And possibly North Korea. The film’s foggy on big bad Kang’s (Rick Yune) affiliations, though it’s intimated he’s working to unite the divergent Koreas by force as he puts his gun to the President’s head and demands nuclear codes.
It’s a ticking clock affair, where Banning must race against time to stop a missile launch, spree-killing his way through gooey strands of flimsy terrorists before devouring Kang’s nougat (his evil plan, I mean). Politically, the film is straight-up Reagan-loving Rambo. Asher has gotten America off foreign oil (did he drill in the US or promote clean-burning solutions?) but Banning maims and tortures like maiming and torturing are going out of style (and, truly, they are) and Wal-Mart’s having a fire sale on both.
Fuqua surrounds his mains with an able-bodied supporting cast. If Morgan Freeman’s in your movie, you’re going to get a solid monologue. He doesn’t disappoint and does some of the better dramatic work in the film, holding court in a bunker and looking like he’s just stress-smoked a carton of cigarettes. Ashley Judd appears briefly, surprisingly to great effect. Then you haveDylan McDermott playing a fine ex-Secret Service douche, Angela Basset showing up to deliver knowledge and Secretary of Defense Melissa Leo getting the crap kicked out of her hostage self. She does inspired work caked under makeup that would suggest she went twelve rounds with Drago.
I have caveats. I had the privilege of seeing Olympus Has Fallen twice. The first cut I saw had unfinished effects. Problem is, acknowledging the effects department was under the gun to get this finished, this film comes with some truly abysmal CG. It’s the sort of deterrent that, had I not known how much had to still be done in thisshort amount of time, I’d likely have not paid as close attention on my latest go-round. But there are sequences in the White House siege that look like they’re made out of clay. It’s the sort of shiny, clean CGI that let’s you know you’re watching a cartoon and not an actual terrorist attack on Washington DC. It’s not all bad, but the plane that invades DC airspace during the attack would’ve been better suited as an extra in Pixar’s upcoming Planes, not a feature piece in one of the most crucial scenes in a live-action cinema.
Gerard Butler hopefully rights his trajectory here. His chiseled, grizzled mug is best-suited for environments like the one in Olympus. He often finds himself in the same rut Dwayne Johnson does, where he’s cast against type so much you lose site of that archetype in the first place. For all the good 300 did for the man’s career, The Ugly Truth and Nim’s Island upset the balance until it was finally rightfully restored right here.
Also back on track, hopefully, is Fuqua. He’s tapped into something viscerally fun and pure with this effort: an action film that’s not putting on airs. There’s a bad guy on one side, a good guy on the other, and it’s up to our hero to point and click his way to the end. Aside from some crap CG, this is a film where my main complaint is that it didn’t have any throat rips.
Who would have thought that this would be the good “White House in peril” flick? No disrespect to the forthcoming White House Down, but Fuqua and company set the bar high, detonated it, then had a unicorn jump it while Morgan Freeman narrated the entire thing. So yeah, I enjoyed Olympus Has Fallen.
But only for what it was, not a sliver of shrapnel more.